Home Living Abroad Family & Pets Why family rituals are important for expat families
Last update on October 16, 2020
Sophie Pettit Written by Sophie Pettit

Family rituals are key to maintaining a sense of identity, security, and belonging, especially when you live abroad and away from the comforts of home.

Whatever form they take and however small they might seem, family rituals can make a big impact. Their ability to create stability within the family unit is particularly important in times of abrupt change, such as moving overseas as a family and dealing with culture shock. With this in mind, we take a look at what makes family rituals so meaningful and offer some tips on how to create your own.

What are family rituals

There is no rule book when it comes to family rituals. Although some traditions are rooted in culture or religion and are commonly observed around holidays and festivals, others are unique to each family. These might have been passed down from previous generations or certain relatives; for example, tucking into a Sunday roast at grandma’s house or singing a special song on birthdays. Then there are those that are created together as a family. This could be as simple as having a funny phrase to say to each other when you bid farewell. It could mean making up a game to play during long car journeys.

Sunday roast with grandma

Whatever they are, personalized rituals are often things that only your family does, which makes them all the more meaningful. As small and insignificant as they may seem, they can create a sense of family identity. This allows members to express who they are and what they value.

The traditions you establish as a family might also live on in future generations. After all, when children grow up, they might want to recreate those special memories with their own family.

Why family rituals are important

As well as providing families with a sense of identity, security, and belonging, rituals can also help them maintain religious and cultural traditions. This is particularly important if you are moving abroad, especially if you’re trying out the expat life for the first time, away from your home culture and support network. While your closest relatives might not be nearby, sharing traditions enables you to spend quality time with those who are. This can also help to strengthen family bonds, regardless of where you happen to live.

Bedtime story

Family rituals are especially important for expatriate children who are bombarded on a daily basis with different values, attitudes, and beliefs at school, whether it’s a local or international school. Third-culture kids, in particular, often become overwhelmed and confused by conflicting messages. Having family traditions and celebrations, however, can help anchor them within their family’s culture and value system. This can also help minimize the internal conflict that arises as they form their personal identities.

It might be as simple as reading your children a bedtime story or singing a song to help them settle. It could also mean giving them a special kiss before they leave for school. All these seemingly small acts can create a big impact. Maybe reconsider hiring an au pair and take a more active role in your family life. They can provide a sense of comfort and security in unfamiliar circumstances; which is critical during traumatic events such as political unrest or natural disasters. Family rituals allow children to feel anchored and protected in a crazy, ever-changing world.

Creating your own family rituals

Given that even the smallest family rituals can make a big impact, you don’t have to wait for major holidays or festivals to create them; you can make them part of your family culture and celebrate them often. Something as simple as having family movie night every Friday, for instance, shows that you value spending time together. This is also a fun way for parents to mark the end of the work week.

Family movie night

Some simple tips to follow

These general rules will help you create fun family rituals and stick to them:

  • Keep it simple; this way you can commit to doing the activity regularly and don’t have to invest large amounts of time planning it.
  • Make it a regular thing; a monthly ritual is good, but a weekly is even better; especially for young children who benefit from a steady routine.
  • Keep it affordable; having a low-cost or free tradition takes away any financial burden which is especially important if money is tight.
  • Include all family members; make sure that everyone is able to take part and happy to do so; for example, choose an activity that you all enjoy.
  • Let everyone contribute ideas; this way all family members feel equal – by trying different activities you might discover something you all love doing.
  • Build them into your daily routines; think about how you can make daily tasks like getting dressed for school or bath time more fun or special.
  • Live in the moment; make a rule to turn off mobile phones and electronic devices that might distract family members from the group activity.

Maintaining family rituals while living abroad

Family rituals can sometimes get abandoned or overlooked in the messiness of establishing a new life abroad. This is often due to the impracticality of maintaining them in your new home country, which might not even recognize certain religious or cultural holidays; making them difficult to celebrate.

Iftar feast

Muslim families living abroad, for instance, often feel a certain amount of social isolation while trying to observe Ramadan away from home. After all, Iftar, the evening meal which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast with, is far more meaningful if it can be shared with friends and neighbors. The same applies to those who celebrate Chinese New Year (or any other Lunar New Year, for that matter). It is possible to keep rituals alive, however, if you are willing to change your mindset.

Embracing change

The goal in these cases is to practice flexible rituals; this means adjusting them to accommodate changing circumstances while keeping the core meanings intact. Take, for example, celebrating Christmas away from home. If you strip down the ritual of lugging a prickly Christmas tree home through the snow, what lies at the heart? It is most likely the simple desire to prepare for a special holiday surrounded by the people you love. Everything else is just detail.

Christmas away from home

If you try to focus on the essence of the ritual, rather than the detail, the pressure to maintain the status quo disappears. So although you may be living in a country where conifers are scarce, it is still possible to keep the crux of your Christmas tradition alive. Why not pick out an artificial tree together, or decorate a tropical houseplant while you all sip on hot chocolate, dressed in tank tops and flip-flops. Wear Santa hats on the beach or play Mariah’s All I Want for Christmas Is You if that will get you in the festive spirit – whatever works. Years from now, this quirky adjustment to your tree-trimming routine might be one of your fondest memories of living in that hot country.

It might even survive future moves – including the one back to your homeland. Because the best family rituals – like the best expats – are those which are able to adapt to changing conditions and bloom wherever they are planted.